By Kyle Hightower, AP
FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — The New England Patriots got a break by not having to face Ben Roethlisberger during their regular-season win over the Steelers in October.
The Patriots’ coaching staff is expecting to get his best this time around with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.
The 27-16 home loss to New England was the only game the Steelers’ 34-year-old quarterback missed due to injury this season.
He was away less than a month after undergoing surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee Oct. 17. He was also among several Pittsburgh players that sat out the regular-season finale against the Browns to rest.
Backup quarterback Landry Jones was serviceable in just his third career start in Roethlisberger’s absence.
The Steelers outgained the Patriots 375-362, but were 1 for 4 in the red zone and Jones finished with only one touchdown and an interception.
Pittsburgh is expecting, and will need a stronger performance from the quarterback position this time around.
Coach Bill Belichick said Monday that Big Ben’s return makes the Steelers’ primary offensive options — running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown — only that much harder to contend with. Bell rushed for 81 yards in the first meeting and Brown had seven catches for 106 yards.
“They’re a tremendous offense. Kansas City was able to make some plays in the red area, but I mean (the Steelers) could’ve easily been up in the 40s,” Belichick said.
“They do a lot of things well; can run it, can throw it. Brown’s the main guy, but all of the receivers, tight ends, backs, I mean they’re all a problem.”
The Chiefs may have planted the seed for how to keep Roethlisberger out of the end zone, however.
The Steelers were held without a touchdown in Sunday’s 18-16 divisional-round win over Kansas City. They also ranked 12th in the NFL during the regular season in red zone efficiency, scoring a touchdown on 59 percent of the trips inside the 20-yard line. They were 0 for 5 in their trips against Kansas City.
Roethlisberger had 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions in the red zone in 14 regular-season games.
But so far in the playoffs, Big Ben has just two total passing touchdowns and three interceptions.
Still, the Steelers coaching staff’s trust in him to throw the deep ball is something that will be a point of emphasis this week, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.
In particular he said Roethlisberger’s calm in the pocket and his offensive line’s ability to protect him helps him buy time to improvise.
“If those plays can get extended or prolonged, that’s when it becomes really difficult,” Patricia said. “I think Roethlisberger right now (is) very mobile, very healthy, a guy that showed even again (Sunday night) that just a slight bit of movement or a slight bit of ability to maybe evade the rush, or stand in there just a little bit longer gives his guys enough time to get open in those situations.”